How to talk about disabilities with kids

Just before turning one, I lost my hearing and don’t remember being any other way. My life (to me, anyway) is normal. There are plenty of modifications that I need and use. I wear a hearing aid in one ear and am completely deaf in the other. As a student, my teachers wore an FM microphone that transmitted sound directly to my hearing aid, and I now use it for meetings at work. I use closed captioning on my television and at the movie theatres. I often will ask someone to be my ears for me too. My husband is the one who listens for the kids at night when I’m not wearing my hearing aid. 🙂

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I’ve had my fair share of questions about my hearing aid. As a teenager working with kids, there were a lot of questions, and I loved to answer them. My fallback explanation is: “That’s called a hearing aid. I can’t hear very well and my hearing aids help me to hear, just like how some people wear glasses to see better.” For some older kids or extra curious kids, or when I’m really struggling to understand a child, I also add that even with a hearing aid, I still have a hard time hearing well. I often joke that I would love to have some new ears!

Nowadays, childcare centres and schools are incredibly inclusive, which is so fantastic – not only for children with special needs, but also for all children in the classroom. Your children might even be more comfortable with other people’s differences than you are!

Kids ask awesome questions

Still, kids are curious and will often just want to know “why”; they might need an explanation for why someone in their class is allowed to have a snack every hour or why the stranger in the checkout line is in a wheelchair or why their friend’s dad has a prosthesis. When my daughter asks me questions about another person’s assistive device, special need or disability, it’s easy enough for me to say, “you know how I wear a hearing aid to help hear? Well that person uses a wheelchair to get around.” You can do the same thing by using the glasses analogy for little kids. Be an “askable parent” by sticking with the facts, and just like having the “where do babies come from” chat, give them the information they can understand and try to keep emotion out of it.

There’s no need to express pity by saying things like “oh, that poor boy” or “so sad.” There’s also no need to be mortified by your child’s loud questions, and certainly no need to shush them and shoo them away. Think about what message that teaches your child. I know you are genuinely worried about the person with a special need noticing, but it’s probably not their first time, and they might even see it as a teachable moment.

When you are in the moment, stick with the facts that you do know. It is important to teach manners, of course. If your child is rude or says something hurtful, I would suggest calmly correcting them. If the person (or the parent of the child) with a disability notices and is listening, you might be able to read the situation – maybe they would be open to your child asking them a question. Let your child see that people with special needs are just like everyone else – many are friendly (and, just like everyone else, some are not).

Focus on abilities

A preschool teacher sitting on the floor with a group of multi-ethnic children in a circle. They are watching her as she holds up a card. A little girl, a special needs child with down syndrome, is standing beside her handing a card to another child.

You can start a conversation with your child by asking them if they know anyone with a special need or disability. Maybe grandpa walks with a cane and grandma has a hearing aid. Is there a child in their class with a special need? Then focus on the things they can do – bring the focus to the person’s abilities. Recently my daughter said a child in her class with a developmental delay has a hard time sitting still during circle time. So I asked her what he was good at. She said “he’s really good at running! He’s so fast.” I then asked her to think of the things they had in common. Turns out they both love to play in the sand.

Remind your child that there are some things that you need help with that other people don’t and vice versa. You can ask your child to reflect on what they themselves aren’t so great at and what they are good at.

We all need a bit of help; some of us need more help than others. Keep in mind many of us have disabilities and special needs that are not obvious. If someone seems strange or even rude, try to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a stranger snap at me because I didn’t hear them. Treat others with respect and kindness and show your child how to as well. It’s okay to be curious and to ask questions politely, but it’s not okay to make fun of another person or to be rude and ask what’s ‘wrong’ with them. It’s okay to ask friends with special needs what you can do to help (if they even need your help at all!). Personally I appreciate it when friends remember to get my attention before speaking, and when they speak clearly but normally (not exaggerated or too loud). I also prefer to communicate in person or by email and text. Believe it or not, even I forget about my disability and it’s ok if you forget too.

Do you have a story or more tips to share when talking to children about disabilities? We love to hear from you!

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For parenting information or to speak with a Public Health Nurse (every Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) simply dial 311 or 905-825-6000.

About Andrea Scott RN

I’m a public health nurse with the HaltonParents team – you’ll find me blogging, tweeting and answering emails. I’ve been working for the Halton Region Health Department since 2006 and my focus has been on supporting parents with babies and little kids. I have two little ones myself, “Pumpkin” and “Monkey” who give me plenty to blog about! :)
This entry was posted in Grandparents, Parenting, Physical Health, Preschool, preschoolers, School, School-aged Children, Special Needs, Toddlers and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How to talk about disabilities with kids

  1. Nice article. thanks. I am a mother and I have a doughtier at 9. She is vary angry and don;t like any teacher. I have fetch a great problem. So this post is helpful to. If any one have any tips for get ride of this situation, please help me.

    • Andrea Scott RN says:

      Hi Lisa, I’m sorry to read about your problem. If you live in Halton Region, Ontario, I would suggest calling us by dialing 311 to talk with a public health nurse. Otherwise perhaps you could look in your community for supports to parents to help you.
      ~Andrea

  2. Shawna says:

    This is a wonderful article, Andrea. Well written and thoughtful. At both the schools my kids have attended (one in Halton, the other in Tecumseh), the teachers did a great job of including everyone and talking about differences, similar to how you have in this article. For my kids, it makes having “differences” appreciated and what makes a person unique.

    • Andrea Scott RN says:

      Thank you so much Shawna! I agree, the teachers have been doing a great job teaching my daughter too 🙂
      ~ Andrea

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